Stephen Roszel was preparing for his “dream job” teaching Advanced Placement government and social studies at Monacan High School near Richmond, Virginia, this year when the Chesterfield School Board adopted a mask mandate, a move recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then required by the state.
Roszel declined on principle. He joined parents in filing open records requests for the science behind the mandate, which is designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, communicated his reasoning to the administration and never stepped foot in the school.
This week, he was fired. He joins a growing number of teachers around the country who are losing their jobs or being reprimanded for refusing to comply with public health rules they say infringe on personal choice.
Roszel said his issue isn’t with the mask itself, but with the state mandate.
“I’m opposed to the mandate. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask; if you don’t, don’t. If I’m hanging out with you and you’re more comfortable with me wearing a mask, or we’re having a cup of coffee and you want me to wear a mask, I will wear a mask. It’s not an issue,” he said.
“I felt it was unconstitutional if the state were to mandate masks for all K-12 school settings both private and public: That’s something a state legislature needs to take up, not an executive branch agency,” Roszel added.
Rosemary Salomone, a Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John’s University in New York City, said the school district was operating responsibly.
“It’s just unfathomable that he’s even making these claims because they’re not even close to having any constitutional grounding,” she said.
The School Board voted for the mandate Aug. 10, and State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver issued a public health order with the requirement two days later.
Roszel contacted Monacan High ahead of the beginning of the teacher workweek in August. Having no medical or religious exemptions, he was put on administrative leave.
“The [administration] team at Monacan handled it very delicately and with grace,” Roszel said in an interview Thursday, adding he later had a Zoom meeting where he was given the choice to resign or be terminated.
“Human resources pushed resignation very, very hard,” Roszel said. “I felt that I needed to stand up for myself and point out to CCPS, as well as the residents of Chesterfield County and my students, that this was wrong, and I was going to stand for what was right. I wasn’t going to be forced to quit my job I just worked so hard to attain.”
Roszel’s appeal of his termination was denied in an anonymous vote by the School Board on Tuesday night, he said. During the appeal process, Roszel said he provided information showing masks are not effective. He said the school system did not provide any studies proving they were.
Masks, according to the CDC, are simple barriers to help prevent a person’s respiratory droplets from reaching others. Wearing a mask over the nose and mouth reduces the spray of droplets from things such as sneezing, breathing and talking.
The agency began recommending their use in public spaces in April 2020, and state and local health agencies amplified the message.
Oliver, who oversees the Virginia Department of Health, had the authority under law to adopt rules promoting public health and the state has a compelling interest in protecting the health of children, Salomone said.
Roszel spoke about his situation during a public comment session Tuesday.
“I will wear a mask if I voluntarily choose to do so. I will neither comply with a mandate nor impose mandates on my students as some sort of enforcer. It is immoral,” he said.
In a later interview he said he hoped his choices wouldn’t encourage “bad behavior.”
“I urge everyone to approach these situations with kindness,” he said.
While Roszel is vaccinated, some teachers have pushed back on getting the shot.
In Maryland, a teacher filed a federal lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools, where the shot is enforced, citing a religious exemption. Originally, the school district allowed only medical exemptions, but in recent days has included religious exemptions.
Chicago Public Schools walked backed its vaccine mandate for staff, initially saying teachers would be ineligible to teach if they were not vaccinated by Oct. 15 . Now, unvaccinated teachers must undergo weekly testing.
Last school year, Roszel voluntarily was vaccinated and fully cooperated with the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies, which included wearing both a mask and a face shield.
“I fully cooperated and, in fact, was very proactive to assist other teachers in getting their classrooms set up effectively [for social distancing],” Roszel said.
On Tuesday night, Roszel said he complied with last year’s strategies because as he “understood we were dealing with a novel virus outbreak and needed protected safeguards in place.”
Roszel previously worked in sales and began his teaching career with Chesterfield County in January 2020 when he was hired to be a long-term substitute history teacher at Robious Middle. When schools closed two months later because of the virus, Roszel’s position was eliminated.
For the 2020-2021 school year, Roszel was offered a full-time teaching position back at Robious teaching eighth-grade civics and economics. For now, he’s creating a private education tutoring company where he plans to offer test prep and work with home schooling co-ops.
As of Thursday, Roszel had not received any official notice of his employment status from the school system. A schools spokesman did not answer questions regarding Roszel’s termination.
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